Arts & Life

A Day in Jim Thorpe – March 2011

Written by Christen Croley | Feb 18, 2011 7:21 PM

Jim Thorpe never watched the sun rise over the mountains from the corner of Broadway and Susquehanna. He didn't hear the rumble of the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway as it rolled crowded passenger cars into the Mauch Chunk station on Lehigh Avenue. He never walked the narrow corridors of downtown or stood in the glare of the Victorian townhouses lining millionaire's row.

Moments after the swift curve of Route 209 descends from Lehighton into the borough of Jim Thorpe, however, the Olympic athlete's disconnect from the coal patch village bearing his name becomes irrelevant. The view from the square on Broadway as it winds west toward Pisgah Mountain captures the eclectic vibe of a town revitalized from the ashes of its turn-of-the-century glory days and repurposed for visitors from as far away as New York City.

History

Josiah White led the first settlers into the wilderness of Old Mauch Chunk (now the town of Jim Thorpe) in 1818 after realizing the potential wealth buried inside the surrounding mountains of the Upper Lehigh region. The "charter citizens" of Mauch Chunk carved river routes and dirt roads out of the mountainside, and the town's legendary Switchback Gravity Railroad rolled shipments of coal from the mines 900 feet above to the docks of the Lehigh Canal.

The town flourished throughout the 19th century as a tourist destination second only to Niagara Falls. The Switchback Gravity Railroad attracted visitors eager to ride the 18-mile track through Mauch Chunk's sprawling forests. The Victorian architecture lining Broadway echoed the sophistication of the town's burgeoning millionaire population.

The petroleum boom of the early 1900s dismantled Mauch Chunk's railroad and tourism industries and sent the area into 50 years of economic distress. Desperate, each family in Mauch Chunk donated five cents a week toward an undecided revitalization project. The resulting $30,000 fund caught the attention of Patricia Askew, the widow of legendary Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, who had famously lost a battle with Oklahoma officials to erect a monument in Thorpe's honor and saw opportunity in Mauch Chunk's program. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged to form the new city of Jim Thorpe and built a monument to the athlete overlooking the Lehigh River from Route 903.

The newly established borough didn't recuperate from the name change as planned. But in 1972, a newly constructed dam solved the town's reoccurring floods and created Mauch Chunk Lake Park. An influx of outdoor enthusiasts flocked to the lake and spurred the Downtown Main Street Program, reawakening Jim Thorpe's tourism industry with art galleries, specialty shops, restored hotels and restaurants.

Historic Attractions

Today Jim Thorpe recalls its "golden age" along the winding streets of its historic downtown. The Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center towers over West Broadway in the old St. Paul's Methodist/Episcopal Church and provides an in-depth portrait of the town's past through family heirlooms and artifacts. Photographs of local families, functioning models of the Switchback Gravity Railroad and unearthed Native American tools tell of Jim Thorpe's journey from untamed wilderness to cultural gem.

The Mauch Chunk Opera House, a few blocks south of the museum, follows the curve of West Broadway as it twists toward the mountains. The Opera House's 130-year reputation for excellent acoustics and vaudeville charm attracts nationally acclaimed musicians, comedians and actors to the 390-seat theater each year.

The Old Jail Museum looms amid the rainbow-colored Victorians and stone churches of West Broadway. Seven Irish coal miners who belonged to an organization of local coal miners known as the Molly Maguires were hanged in the prison cell block between 1877 and 1879, accused of murder. One of the accused prisoners placed a dirty hand print on the wall of Cell #17 as a testament to his innocence. The print remains, despite attempts to repaint. Tours run daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Shopping

Jim Thorpe caters to a diverse mix of crowds with specialty shops boasting antiques, local artisan crafts, books and more. The Dreisbach House on Broadway serves as the ultimate in consignment clothing and jewelry. Pashminas, hats, clutches, fur coats and an entire room dedicated to antique jewelry abound inside the carefully restored mansion, complete with hand-stenciled walls and a gold-painted ceiling.

The Soapothecary Spa & Salon, a few blocks down Broadway, features biodegradable body oils, fragrances and soaps designed for allergy-sensitive skin.

The Emporium of Curious Goods, near the square on Broadway, showcases an interesting collection of whimsical décor, religious statues, capes, robes, swords, incenses and a library of metaphysical literature. According to shop lore, a phantom cat sometimes wanders around, surprising unsuspecting customers.

The old-fashioned spirit of Jim Thorpe couldn't exist without the Mauch Chunk 5 & 10 on Broadway. Underneath the original tin ceilings, an inventory of souvenirs and unusual gifts transports visitors into a different time and place.

Dining

The restaurants sprinkled along Broadway and Race Streets cover a spectrum of dining experiences. The Molly Maguires Pub & Steakhouse occupies the first floor of the Hotel Switzerland in Hazard Square. Booths and cafe tables tucked inside an intimate European-pub-style setting reflect the restaurant's 180-year-long downtown presence. The menu delivers modern twists on bar food staples, including nuclear chicken wings, crab and Parmesan dip, and a Guinness New York strip steak.

The Broadway Grille & Pub on the ground level of the Inn at Jim Thorpe oozes Victorian charm, with elaborate woodwork climbing the walls of the narrow space toward an original tin ceiling. The extensive drinks list ranges from domestic beers to specialty cocktails like a Danishtini or Broadway Cosmo, and the bar features a chalkboard countertop with messages scribbled between drink specials by past patrons.

The locally sourced menu at Flow on West Broadway features organic and seasonal ingredients from farms throughout the East Coast. The 1850s restored wire mill also maintains art galleries and hosts photography, painting and yoga classes.

The Strange Brew coffee shop on Broadway impresses not for its latte and espresso selection — though the white chocolate latte garnished with whip cream and white chocolate chips was a nice touch — but for the hand-painted mural of rock legends such as the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, covering the entire left side of the store. A small stage complete with microphone and a set of couches provides a comfortable pit stop along the downtown strip.

Inside Rainbow's End, ornate Tiffany-style lamps enhance the rows of candy-stuffed jars, glass cases filled with chocolates and fudges and a selection of vintage treats, from Turkish taffy to candy cigarettes. At the back of the store, an ice cream cooler and soda fountain feature Hershey's ice cream scoops, shakes, malts and root beer floats.

Art Galleries

The foundation of Jim Thorpe's unique cultural aesthetic lies in the handful of art galleries along Broadway and Race Street. Each features local artists and covers a range of styles. The abstract paintings of Joel Le Bow at Hazard House Gallery and the mix of handcrafted jewelry, clothing and art at Galerie B at Opera House Square showcase the extensive talents of Jim Thorpe's resident artists.

The Black Diamond Gallery on West Broadway features the limestone-based lithographic prints of Ron Chupp, whose eye for landscapes dominates his work.

The Gandy Dancer on Hill Road sits tucked behind the bustle of Broadway, but its collection of art deco-style railroad photographs and snapshots of modern-day Jim Thorpe makes the shop a worthy cause for deviation from the main streets.


Published in A Day In

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